A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Hooptedoodle #130 – Technology Advances at Chateau Foy

I live in a very rural spot of South East Scotland, as I have mentioned here previously. We are not isolated in the sense that Canadians or Australians would recognise the term, but we are some miles from the nearest village (pubs, shops, post office) and we have so few neighbours that our immediate area is always well down any priority lists for infrastructure improvement. The nearest piped gas supply stops about 4 miles away, our broadband speed is so slow that it even surprises the local engineers, our electricity arrives via overhead cables, which run some miles across the farm fields and through gaps cut in the woods, and there is no mobile phone service here. By the standards of mainland Britain, this is a backwater.

The location suits us, and there are obviously a number of considerable advantages in living out here, but it is the last two of these small technical matters that this morning’s Blethering Sunday hooptedoodle will focus upon.

Rural charm
Subject 1 – Up the Pole

The oldest part of our house was originally a dairyman’s cottage, and was built around 1960. The area which is now our side garden (which, confusingly, is where the front door is) was originally the “drying green” for the little hamlet of farm cottages. We have a hefty wooden pole in the middle of the side lawn, which brings the electric power to the house. The garden has had new boundaries and been landscaped over the years, but I see no reason to suppose that the pole has ever been replaced since 1960.

It is part of the character of the place, and in Provence or somewhere it would seem quite charming to have overhead power cables, but our pole is not a source of pleasure in that way. Since a large neighbouring tree was removed a few years ago, the pole now dominates the garden, and it is not without some dangers. Kites are a very bad idea, water sprayers and hosepipes have to be kept out of the hands of children (in case they fry themselves), and there are numerous local stories of tree surgeons and roofers being killed by discharges arcing from these old cables. We cannot use a pressure spray to take moss off the roof, for example, for fear that the spray makes the God of the Pole angry, and he literally strikes us down. Thus all roof cleaning and repair has to be done with a lot of hand scraping and rather hushed conversation – to be on the safe side.

The ancient pole itself is rotting – on a summer afternoon, if there is no wind, you can hear the wasps munching away at it, deep in the cracks. Our chums at Scottish Power have occasionally come and looked at it, and promised that it will be replaced, but mostly their visits have been notable for fresh applications of very unsightly barbed wire – on the pole and on its anchor-stay – to frustrate our obvious enthusiasm to shin up the 20 feet or so and place a wet finger on the wires, to see what happens. Each time they go away, I take the law into my own hands and remove the barbed wire – if I wish to electrocute myself, I have no desire to hurt myself on the wire on the way up, and I certainly don't want to look at the stuff on a regular basis.

When the pole was last inspected in 2012, the young fellow from Scottish Power said it would be replaced very soon. I asked him was there any chance of the new pole being re-sited in the lane outside our garden, which would give a straighter run for the cabling, would move the wires to a new location, away from our front steps (so the pigeons could no longer sit in a row and defecate on visitors), and would improve the safety of the place quite a bit and the appearance very considerably. The SP man peered at me from beneath his yellow hardhat with the sort of nervous look which is correctly used when dealing with dangerous lunatics (I believe it is part of their training), and mumbled something about regulations and cable spans and planning permission – then he left.

They have returned. A much older man arrived last month, announced that the replacement of the pole was imminent, and – with hardly any prompting from us – suggested that it would be much better to place the new pole outside in the lane (exactly where we wanted it) and, provided the farmer didn’t object, they would be back to carry out the work in April.

Well, the days are accomplished. The pole has been installed. The cables have not been attached yet, but we are booked for a day without electricity on Wednesday, when the cables will be replaced with modern ones. This is such an unexpected stroke of good fortune that we are still expecting something to go wrong, but the pole is here, and it’s standing up, and I can’t see SP wasting their time and money to change it again. All being well, our hated pole will be gone by next weekend. The only people who will not be pleased are the family of sparrows who are living in an illegal nesting box (above the barbed wire line) on the pole itself, but there must always be a little collateral damage.

Good – we’ll give this a very large tick. The sparrows will have more babies in future years.

All right - no laughter, please...

Subject 2 – The Dreaded Smart-Phone

I have a very ancient mobile phone – it is so old, in fact, that the sales assistant in Phones4U burst out laughing when he saw it yesterday. I was not embarrassed – I was quite proud of it. I should have done something about my mobile years ago, but I hardly use it, and I am currently paying my network supplier some £18 a month for something which gives me hardly any benefit at all. How stupid is that?

As mentioned earlier, my home is a dead spot on the mobile networks – no service at all. When I was running my little publishing business, and travelling around a bit, I used my mobile a lot, and could not have managed without it. Without that context, my phone is now an expensive nuisance for most of the time. It is useful when I go away, or out in the car, but I only really need to make the occasional call and send the odd text – I have been known to take photos, but rarely.

The rest of the world, of course, cannot understand this. Despite my requests that they should not use my mobile number, friends and businesses constantly make calls which I do not receive. Courier deliveries and internet banking security procedures now do not work properly if you do not have a working mobile. Service engineers for utilities and domestic hardware will request a mobile number, so they can text and tell us when they are likely to arrive. If you do not have a working mobile, pal, you are not a citizen.

There is a whiff of comedy when I drive away from home, up the lane and off the farm. There is a sound like a genteel fire alarm, which is the accumulated urgent text messages from the last couple of days chiming through as I head towards the real world. By the time I get to the public road – maybe a mile away – the display shows a handsome network service, ready to meet all my demands. The thing which really niggles is that I am paying £18 per month for this joke, and it is all my own fault, since I have not done anything about it before now.

The network provider keeps urging me to upgrade my phone, which hardly seems worthwhile if I don’t use it. Thus my wife and all the sensible people have moved on, and bought modern phones, while I still live in a bygone age. A friend of mine visited recently, and – of course – his mobile didn’t work, but he has an app installed on his iPhone which enables him to register with my house wi-fi, and he could then receive and make calls through the internet quite satisfactorily.


The rest of the world almost certainly is aware of all this and uses it every day, but it had eluded me until now. Yesterday I travelled to Edinburgh (on the train, with a loaf of bread and my old phone in a knotted handkerchief, on a stick over my shoulder) and went to talk to the nice people in the phone shops. Goodness, what a lot of them there are…

I had to get someone to talk me out of this loop – don’t want a smartphone since no service at home and not worth the expense, but only way to get a decent service at home is with a smartphone. I think I now have a way ahead. I can change my contract so that the monthly allowances are so much better I can hardly believe it, and they will provide me with a posh new phone so that I can use them, and the monthly payment will go down to three-quarters of what it is now. If I provide my own phone it will be even cheaper – about half. It all hinges on whether the mobile actually works at my house under this new arrangement. The sales guy at EE (I am an Orange customer) reckons it will, but then he has the faith, which I do not.

They have offered to lend me a SIM card for a fortnight so I can try it out. Seems sensible.

So I am approaching a big decision point – if it works, I will join the ranks of the detestable smartphone users, and my life will change forever (aaargh!); if it doesn’t, I shall probably hang on to my existing museum-exhibit and switch to a cheap, pay-as-you-go arrangement which suits my minimal usage.

I had a trial play with my wife’s iPhone yesterday – it seems very good – I quite fancy that. The only hang-ups I have are

(1) the cost of the phone

(2) the fact that it offers a vast array of features, games, music, ridiculous apps and so on that I am not the slightest bit interested in

(3) I have to rise above my virulent dislike of smartphones, and the very serious damage they have done to education, literacy, the workings of society and a number of other trifling areas

Yesterday I sat on the train into Edinburgh and it was almost silent. Nobody speaks, so as you would notice. Everyone is texting, so presumably they must have some friends somewhere else – unless, of course they were texting the person in the next seat. The other day, I sat in a coffee bar in a bookshop in Haddington, reading, when three ladies arrived at the next table – greeted each other warmly, ordered coffee and cakes, and then got out their iPhones and ignored each other for the next 20 minutes. Terrific – I don’t want to get like that – even a bit. The fact that I have no mates might help out a lot here.

How can we have such an overkill of communications technology, when hardly anyone has anything worthwhile to say? How can we have such an overprovision of phone apps which we do not really need and which waste more time than anyone can sensibly afford? How can anyone ever get any peace, or have a worthwhile idea, if they spend their lives with their heads jammed up their backsides?

Don’t tell me how busy you are if you spend a quarter of your day gawping at crap online, or sending non-messages to your pals. If you choose to do it, then no problem, but it is a choice – you are not really busy. Get a life. And do not answer your phone or check your texts while you are speaking to me, or I shall throw the thing into the nearest pond.



  1. Smartphones do have some benefits. I read and am commenting on your blog posting on one for example.

    As for Apps, for gaming purposes I regularly use a dice app and Select Who? is also rather helpful. Nothing we didn't used to do accompanied by chants of 'Ip dip dog shit, you are not it' but somehow more dignified.

    1. I'm sure you are right. When I was walking Hadrian's Wall 18 months ago, one of my colleagues (townie, non-walker) was delighted that the was going to be able to use the compass app on his iPhone. Personally I was horrified - what if someone had seen him? Fortunately I had with me an odd, round device, with a magnetic needle in the middle, which was invented centuries ago just in case someone had forgotten their iPhone. That seemed to work well enough, and i didn't have to recharge it.

  2. Hurrah! A kindred spirit.
    My wife got me a new mobile telephone for my birthday as the paleo-telephone that I had before never worked on the rare occasions that I tried to use it. The new one looked very like your old one, in truth, so I'm now beginning to wonder if it was all a joke.

    Anyway, I successfully ignored the thing until the night I went out for a few pints with the lads, talked long about wargaming and missed the last bus home. Walking back across the fields, I suddenly thought 'Aha, I'll telephone Herself for a lift.' (This was a breakthrough - normally it wouldn't have occurred to me.)
    I couldn't use it in the dark. Apparently, there is a light under the keyboard, but of course you needed to be able to see the keys to be able to turn it on.

    So, if anyone is crossing a field ditch in the Dearne Valley and happens to find a mobile telephone ...

    1. Excellent story - thank you for this. There is still hope.

  3. Agreed. Hurrah on both counts, Glad your pole is due to be replaced, and yes, yes, yes on the iPhone nonsense. I still do not have any sort of portable phone, and it drives my wife and mother nuts. But I see no need, and when I'm out and about. . . I don't want to take calls or receive messages. There is nothing that cannot wait until I am home again.

    Best Regards,


    1. In the UK, the mass adoption of the mobile phone has led to the disappearance of the public phone box (pretty much), so if you do not have your own with you then you are at some risk if you get into problems when you are out, or your car breaks down. That is just about acceptable as a reason for having to carry one, but we also have a sinister trend which will make it impossible to park your car, pay a bill or buy something in a shop if you don't have the correct app on your phone. I draw the line some distance short of that.

  4. I'm rather a fan of the smartphone, given that it means that I have a phone, camera, torch, small library of books, collection of maps, voice recorder and legal reference in my pocket. To say nothing of the music and audiobook player.

    The Blogger app is pretty good too.

    Congratulations on getting your pole moved.

    There's an double entendre in there somewhere.

    1. I hear what you are saying about the smartphone, though your voice is strangely muffled...

    2. ... and functions as a handy paperweight.

    3. Ah yes - the paperweight app - in fact i have negative personal experience of this - friend attempting to read map on car bonnet, places phone on a corner, to hold it still. At this moment he receives a call, and vibrating silent mode causes phone to run off the curved bonnet onto the ground. Map is unrestrained...

  5. Every now and then my wife tries to persuade me to get hold of a smart phone of some sort. And every now and then I am almost persuaded. But then something happens that unpersuades me again.

    Like the R2D2 ring tone that drives me up the wall. I have pointed out that there wasn't a whole lot of point in getting hearing aids if the R2D2 row drowns out anything I really want to listen to. Like the TV.

    Fact is, I've never really liked telephones much, seeing in them pretty much a queue-jumping device. Have you ever noticed that however they do it the ring tone always sounds like "Pick up this phone and answer it or your balls will drop off!"

    Even the land line gig irritates the hell outta me. Time was, the phone rang, you cursed mightily at the liver-scrambling ruckus, picked up the phone, and, letting the person at the end know you are there, said something useful like "Hullo."

    Now they have added the really useful step of pressing some button or other to allow you to complete the connection. Why? For the rest, I have never used an answer-phone, never used caller-ID (though I can see the point of that), and aren't in the slightest bit interested in anything a mobile - sorry - smart phone has to offer.

    Here's my favorite story about this utterly useless tech. Years ago my wife and daughter took a trip to Malaysia, each taking with them a mobile phone for the purpose of texting, taking photos, etc. Yep, d. left her phone somewhere, it vanished, and several hundred dollars worth of tech and tech services was lost beyond recovery.

    Some time after they had returned home comes this interesting bill for several thousand dollars. Somewhat belatedly we shot down to the local place where you buy these services and got a stop put on the thing. Promptly the next month came a bill for several thousand more. All up we were looking at a bill somewhere in the region, if memory serves, of eight grand plus in phone bills.

    Well, it turned out that at least some of that was incurred subsequent to out putting a stop on the phone, so the vendor came to the party on that one, and the bill dropped to 5 thou. After a bit of negotiation and faffing around, we got our liability reduced to proportions that were at least liveable with - maybe a couple of grand or so. Still a big hit, considering it was money lost with nothing to show for it. At any rate, I thought the vendor company pretty generous.

    But what had happened? Turned out this bloody device had fetched up in Pakistan, and , being free to whoever had it, was used to run up this enormous bill. It was conjectured that it was being used as a kind of public phone. W. and d. thought this was pretty cool (what's eight, or five, or even two grand to set against that!?), even when I pointed out that for all we knew it was being used by some terrorist or other to organise some act of terrorism. Unlikely, but far from implausible.

    You can tell I wasn't very happy about it all, eh? It certainly didn't persuade me that a mobile, smart phone was worth the having.


    1. This is the most horrifying mobile phone story I have heard - thank you for this - a salutary lesson for all. Two principal messages stand out for me - (1) be very careful with mobile phones (2) only allow your kids to have pay-as-you-go contracts or, alternatively, avoid having kids.

      This morning's radio news in the UK features exciting new development whereby you can designate a mobile number to be associated with your bank account - you'll be able to send instant cash to anyone else who is registered to the system, just by entering their number. I don't wish to appear unenthusiastic here, but - apart from the millions of little turds who must be working on how to hack this system and corrupt it, and apart from the appalling prospect of mislaying such a phone, you may sit down and write out a list of all the security issues which you can think of which might cause you to hesitate to join up. You have two hours - start now.

      Regards - Tony

  6. I once lost one of Her Majesty's cell phones when I was travelling on duty once, and promptly reported it to the IT people when I returned. Several years later, when I was posted out, I went to the IT section for my out clearance. Oh sir, they said, you still have this cell phone on your account. I bloody don't, I said, I reported it missing two years ago and told you to deactivate it. You did deactivate it, didn't you? Apparently not, sir, I guess the person you reported it missing to didn't act on that.
    I like to think that the Canadian Forces paid for someone to make a lot of calls, as in the Archduke's story, since that phone was not password protected.

    I confess I am in the same tech camp as young Kinch, even though I admire staunch traditionalists. I do find it amusing when I go to the university campus where I spend my days now, seeing crowds of young adults shuffling about, each stooped over and looking at their cell phone as they walk. It takes heroic efforts on my part when driving not to mow them down in droves, as they never think to look for dangers. Perhaps they have a smart phone app that warns them of approaching dangers?
    Good news about your hydro upgrade. Your part of Scotland sounds most idyllic.

    1. Today is pole replacement day - they should be here in about an hour, so today will be a long day without power. I have to stay at home, to give the engineers access and to receive a courier parcel expected today - it's amazing how little there is to do when the power is off! I was sort of hoping to work in the garden, but it is wet and gloomy. Oh well - better make sure my DAB radio is charged up...